The crashing of grey waves upon the coast, the beeps and boops of the busy arcade, and a man wearing a vest tellling awkward jokes in a bar that feels more like a village hall.
Ah yes, the English summer holiday.
From the onset, Sweetheart feels terribly British so much so that you can practically taste the panda pops. Yet underneath the caws of seagulls and strained entertainment lies a blossoming relationship and someone’s sweet coming-of-age tale.
Directed by Marley Morrison in her feature film debut, Sweetheart revolves around AJ – a grumpy seventeen-year-old who is being dragged to a caravan park for the summer holidays by her somewhat over-bearing mother. Unafraid to let everyone know just how fed-up she is AJ hopes she can hideaway until she can escape to wash the elephants. However, when she meets lifeguard Isla, AJ finds herself falling head-over-heels extremely quickly. Could this be the romance to turn this holiday around?
Leading the way is fantastic newcomer Nell Barlow. Grunting through adolescent insults whilst also narrating the action, Barlow immediately interjects some understanding because it is so genuine. An LGBT teenager who feels so out of place within the world, AJ isn’t trying to be petulant – she is just severely exasperated.
It doesn’t help that her mother Tina, played by the incredible Jo Hartley, adds unwarranted pressure for AJ to brighten up and fit in. Hartely, is terrific because she haphazardly tries to bond with her sullen daughter. All the while she is dealing with divorce and getting by on pittance. Tina yearns for a relaxing holiday in hopes her children can enjoy themselves and is exasperated when it doesn’t succeed. Instead, AJ and Tina fight.
Most of their conversations wind up in arguments and huffs, which is especially exacerbated by her older, pregnant daughter Lucy. The only people who seem to be enjoying themselves is Lucy’s husband Sam and little sister Dayna, and their attempts to shine through the tension are welcomed.
Ella-Rae Smith as Isla is a charming, brilliant light into AJ’s dark cloud. There is great chemistry between the young actors despite the characters being polar opposites. Their romance softly unfolds as they face the usual challenges any teen would face.
On this note, I admired this movie that didn’t apply a hedonistic life-style to the teens in the movie a la Skins. Sure, they drink a lot, but it’s in the cubby-like gardens and grotty sofas whilst they talk absolute shit with one another. Awkward but true, it’s depiction is fantastic.
Morrison’s film is a stirring and tender look at first loves. It is, sadly, refreshing to see a lesbian coming-of-age story which focuses on the characters more so than the sex. Instead, this is solely about AJ who is frustrated but, more importantly, does want to connect with everyone.
The gem of Morrison’s work is that she is able to depict difficult family situations, albeit peered at through the lens of the huffy AJ. Though she has a multitude within her, and she struggles to find her footing in a more outgoing family, AJ cannot grasp that money may be tight, or her mother might also be in that same dark place, or that her little sister looks up to her regardless. All of this is deftly handled in the intimate script and Morrison’s assured direction.
Sweetheart is a loving film that cares for its characters. It pays off; here is a modern coming-of-age story that feels so very real. Especially for anyone who was once a hormonal teenager reaching out to the world to find where they belong.
So…that’s everyone, I guess?
Sweetheart plays as part of the Glasgow Film Festival
Buy tickets now.